This Year's Folk Alliance International Conference Featured Several Cleveland Artists

click to enlarge The Low Down Brass Band from Chicago had the crowd on their feet and dancing during their showcase. - Karen Pulfer Focht
Karen Pulfer Focht
The Low Down Brass Band from Chicago had the crowd on their feet and dancing during their showcase.
More than 1,000 musicians from the world over converged on New Orleans this past weekend and did their best to convince promoters, festival organizers, music critics and disc jockeys that they are the next Big Thing.

Or at least good enough to book for a show.

The Folk Alliance International Conference's annual five-day conference is a must for the new artist trying to make an impression. Of course, there are always "Big Names" at the event as well, though many slip in and out quietly. But for every Mavis Staples, Tom Rush, Ani DiFranco or Maria Muldaur, there were dozens of others looking for that big break, from Alisa Amador to Zapammat.

You can see a slideshow of photos from the event here.

Cleveland was well-represented with musicians like Alex Bevan, Charlie Mosbrook and B. Ryan B. plying their craft and making connections. Others, like Clay Pasternack, of Rocky River, were there seeking artists that might need his CD and vinyl manufacturing and distribution services.

The conference, which ended yesterday, was a maelstrom of musical styles from Americana to aboriginal Australian music through folk, jazz, country and western, rock, and musical amalgams that have no name.

The music reverberated through every corner of the French Quarter Sheraton Hotel, competing with the musicians on every street corner outside. Inside, musicians performed constantly in every corner of the Sheraton. They played in the rooms, in the lobby and even in the stairwells. They carried guitars and banjos everywhere as they tried to squeeze giant stand-up basses into elevators. There were shows in concert halls of varying sizes day and night.

When those "official" shows ended at 10:30 p.m., the music shifted upstairs into hundreds of simultaneous intimate concerts in hotel rooms that went on almost to sunrise. Often the rooms filled quickly, with people sitting on the floor and beds, while unlucky fans craned to hear the music from the hallway. Sometimes, performers played for an audience of three, even one.

It was a bit overwhelming for singer-songwriter Alex Bevan, who has been a musical fixture in Northeast Ohio since the early '70s.

"This is my first Folk Alliance conference," he said. "I'm blown away by all the talent here. It's giving me a new perspective of where I can go with my music, and it is a great place to network."

For music lovers, the conference is an orgy of song and substance, a place to experience events that may never happen again. Spontaneous jams happened, where musicians joined others on stage and as if they had been together for years. These one-time collaborations become the stuff of legends and perhaps Youtube.

This year, a show that will go down in Folk Alliance history found 30 people crammed into a room to hear a superstar round-robin concert with Tom Rush, Eric Schwartz, Seth Glier, Jenny Reynolds, Neale Eckstein and R.J. Cowdery in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering.

It was one of those shows where even the artists went slack-jawed as they listened to each other's intimate songs. Tom Rush was at his laid back best. Prolific songwriter Cowdery sang her folksy tunes, but no one was prepared for Glier.

With a talent clearly suited for a big stage, Glier exploded with keyboards and shattering vocals. He was one of the break-out stars of the conference, with his music so inventive and appealing. His songs, like the lovers revenge that says "I want you to cry" with a violinist and a stand-up bass backing his keyboards, were immediate hits.

Rush, whose career started in Boston and Greenwich Village in 1962, performed three new songs including a long-awaited sequel to his 1968 hit, "No Regrets." It was a sad song that seemed to come from the heart, and the last he played for the conference.

The ever-outrageous Eric Schwartz of Boston sang his one and only anti-Trump song — a conversation between Jesus Christ and Satan called "He Won?" about the 2016 election. Schwartz, known for his scandalous political songs, explained that was the only Trump song he wrote because "I just can't bring myself to write anything funny about Trump."

In another room, guitarist Irakli Gabriel and his keyboardist wife Anana Kaye, from the former Soviet republic of Georgia, stood somberly during a concert time that was reserved for their mentor, David Olney, who died just a week before.

"This was to be his show," Gabriel said. "For the past two years we have been working with David writing and recording his new album, which he never got around to naming. We literally just finished it last Saturday night in the studio when we got a call saying that David died of a heart attack on stage while performing in Florida."

The couple performed some of the songs, Anana through tears, that Olney had planned to unveil at the conference. The album, still unnamed, will be released in the spring.

Another break-out performance came from a genre-defying eight-member horn band out of Chicago called the Low Down Brass Band. Words fail. Imagine Blood, Sweat and Tears as a hip-hop band at a Cuban wedding, with a Motown influences. The music was boisterous and infectious causing the normally laid back crowd to dance uncontrollably to "I Got That Feeling."

The Rainbow Girls, an attractive all-woman trio from Northern California, get the award for finest subversive harmony. It was easy to fall in love with their music and playful stage style. The girls were the only performers who could get away with a song that could only be described as an "Anti-Love Song."

The big attraction of the conference is also its greatest weakness. With so many performance occurring at the same time it's easy to get overwhelmed knowing that for every show you watch means you are missing hundreds of others. Walking down a hallway you hear music from every door. That blues singer sounds incredible...wait a second, is that an Appalachian folk song coming from there? The Canadian room has three women singing in perfect harmony. It's too much!

The conference in the past moved around from city to city, including Cleveland in 2000. The future of the moveable feast is in flux, but it's scheduled to be in Kansas City for at least 2021 and 2022.

The New Orleans Sheraton, however, was a poor choice for the convention. The city is a blast, but the hotel was ill-equipped to handle the thousands of people the event attracted. The rooms and hallways were too small and narrow, and the elevators were a disaster, often stranding people.

The conference is exhausting, exhilarating and entertaining, an adrenalin shot of new music. Sound like fun? To get invited to Kansas City next year or volunteer to work there (and get in free), go to folk

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